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Michigan health department recommends continued mask wearing in schools

Lansing — As Michigan schools prepare to reopen this fall, state health officials on Friday recommended students and staff continue to wear masks, get vaccinations and social distance to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

The announcement, made by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, is not a significant departure from current recommendations for school districts and charter schools, which decide on their policies.

Local school districts are expected to craft their own mask wearing policies since the recommendation is a guidance and not part of a state health department epidemic order.

The state health department said it issued the interim recommendations for schools to help prevent transmission of the coronavirus within school buildings in an effort to reduce disruptions to in-person learning and help protect the unvaccinated.

The new guidance said while vaccines are "incredibly effective," the school environment brings together large groups of individuals who might not yet be fully vaccinated. Children under the age of 12 are currently not eligible for vaccinations. 

Literacy specialist Nancy Haboush of Troy works with this student during his reading recovery program as he reads behind a plexiglass, tri-fold desk shield. The Michigan health department is still recommending that school districts require the wearing of masks for students and staff for in-person learning.

Steve Matthews, superintendent of Novi Comunity Schools, said the district's mask policy for the fall will be a future board conversation, but he will recommend examining a policy that makes masks options for everyone in schools.

"Part of our dilemma is the governor and MDHHS are sending mixed messages to the community," Matthews said. "They are rescinding all the mask mandates and parents hear that, and if they come to school and they hear we need to wear a mask, they may fight that it’s a mixed message. That is where we are struggling now."

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, the state's largest school district, said Friday he is making his own policies for mask wearing for the fall.

"Right now our plan for the fall is that everyone will wear a mask indoors unless they are in a room where everyone is vaccinated," Vitti said. "We are working on systems to possibly identify who is, and who is not, vaccinated. Perhaps with stickers on ID cards."

Unvaccinated individuals would still need to wear a mask, he said.

A Lansing-based charter school advocacy group was unhappy that the state is continuing to recommend mask wearing for elementary-age students. 

With plummeting COVID numbers and rising vaccinations, youngsters should not have to wear masks, said Beth DeShone, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, which was founded by former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick.

"Vaccination rates are rising, and young children are at by far the lowest risk of contracting, experiencing serious symptoms from, or transmitting COVID-19," DeShone said in a statement, adding, "Parents have had enough."

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan's chief medical executive, said she is pleased with the progress of vaccination efforts in Michigan, with 56% of Michiganians 12 and older having received at least their first dose.

"These vaccines are the reason transmission of the virus in Michigan is at the lowest point in a year," Khaldun said. "However, as the school environment brings together large groups of individuals who may not yet be vaccinated, MDHHS is issuing this guidance to help protect Michiganders of all ages."

The recommendations included continued COVID-19 screening, testing and contact tracing; promoting hand-washing and covering coughs and sneezes; and avoiding crowded or poorly ventilated indoor activities in school by engaging in outdoor activities when possible and increasing ventilation for indoor activities. 

The new health guidance said “the number and intensity” of prevention strategies can be adjusted based on the level of COVID-19 transmission in an area. But it added that prevention strategies can allow in-person learning to be maintained.

Some Michigan districts provided only virtual learning for much or all the 2020-2021 school year. In January, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer encouraged districts to at least offer in-person instruction by March 1.

Current advice from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said  schools should pursue prevention strategies and prioritize "universal and correct use of masks and physical distancing."

Last week, Whitmer's administration announced the end of capacity limits and the state's indoor mask mandate for unvaccinated people would arrive Tuesday. At the time, officials said guidance for students and schools would come in the near future. 

The last time the state health department addressed guidance for schools was on May 20, when it said regardless of whether individuals are vaccinated, students and staff should continue wearing masks in classrooms through the end of the school year.

Whitmer’s administration has been easing COVID-19 policies for weeks as the percentage of vaccinated adult residents has increased and the number of new infections has dropped significantly. The moves culminated Tuesday when the state’s capacity restrictions and indoor mask requirements for the unvaccinated were lifted. 

The weekly number of new COVID-19 cases in the state has decreased for nine weeks in a row. The rate of new infections and the percentage of tests bringing positive results are at lower levels than they’ve been for about a year. 

Through Thursday, 61% of Michigan residents age 16 and older had received at least their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Most Michigan schools kick off their new school year at the end of August or the day after Labor Day, which is the traditional start to school in Michigan.

jchambers@detroitnews.com

cmauger@detroitnews.com